The Silence of the Lambs (1991)


*. I can’t imagine a better movie being made out of this material.
*. That’s a backhanded compliment. I’m not a fan of the “material.” The Silence of the Lambs was the best of Thomas Harris’s three Hannibal Lecter books, but that’s not saying much. I think it’s hackwork: well-paced and entertaining, but overdrawn, formulaic, and needlessly gruesome. I wonder if Harris even realizes how big an idiot his Lecter sounds with his cheap and easy displays of vulgar learning. The movie tones this down considerably.
*. There’s nothing new in changing horror lead to gold when moving from print to screen. I guess you just have to trust the wisdom of crowds, in this case the bestseller lists. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a terrible book. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may be the most awful classic ever written in English. Robert Bloch’s Psycho isn’t worth reading (trust me). But these clunky and contrived creations were the inspiration for entire film mythologies.
*. The credit sequence introduces the important theme of inversion. It seems as though Starling is being chased through the woods. We’re conditioned by now to see it this way: the creepy music (Howard Shore says he was surprised when people told him they found the opening scary!), the heavy breathing, the shots where the camera chases Starling from behind (a horror film cliché if ever there was one).


*. This sense of inversion is important in a movie where the bad guy is also a hero. And don’t try to say Hannibal isn’t a hero. Screenwriter Ted Tally claims he was upset that Lecter had turned into a “cuddly camp figure” when he was such an awful person. He should have known better. Hannibal is articulate, charming, and compares more than favourably with the degenerates and grotesques he’s associated with (Buffalo Bill, Miggs, even Dr. Chilton). Plus he’s on the side of the good guys and he’s affectionate toward Clarice. So yes, he’s a hero.
*. Note the scene where Starling interviews Hannibal in his hotel cage. Much of it is shot from inside, making it look as though Starling is pacing behind the bars. Demme didn’t need to shoot from this far back, but I think he liked the effect. Is she the hunter or the hunted? Inside or outside the cage? The roles will indeed be reversed when she visits Jame Gumb, but even here Hannibal is warning her of the eyes moving over her body with a predatory gaze.
*. Throughout, Demme has an almost Leone-ish thing for close-ups, his faces filling or even overfilling the screen. And it works because Hopkins and Foster are so good and have such interesting faces, with so much going on behind their professional or psychopathic masks.
*. Sticking with that same point, can you imagine two faces you want to look at more than Jodie Foster’s and Anthony Hopkins’? I wonder how much Demme built the film around the two of them (neither was first choice for the part). For example, originally the idea was to shoot the whole business of Starling’s running away from the farm as a child and present it as a flashback. But when Demme saw how Foster was playing the scene he realized he couldn’t cut away.


*. It’s usually categorized as a horror film, and Roger Ebert in his essay on it even breaks down all the terrifying scenes. But I’ve never found it all that scary. When I first saw it I thought the final bit in the basement scary, but that was it. It’s hard to be scared by Hannibal because he’s so charismatic (which is the sort of thing David Thomson really objects to).
*. Hopkins was apparently going for the voice of HAL in 2001, with a bit of Katherine Hepburn mixed in. I’d say he nailed it.
*. Ted Tally’s script does a very effective job streamlining and generally improving on the novel. The dialogue is much better, and in some places the plot is tightened up.
*. On the downside, Starling seems to fall apart too quickly when she’s with Lecter, and it’s not at all clear what Lecter’s relation is to Jame Gumb, which leads to a lot of confusion at the end.
*. Some unnecessary elements are also carried over from the book, and not sufficiently explained. Whose body, for example, is rotting in the tub? (This is a point that’s not clear in the book either, though I think we find out enough to suggest that the common assumption, that it’s Mrs. Lippman, is wrong.) The Benjamin Raspail subplot is left a tangled mess. And it’s an obvious strain to introduce the night-vision goggles in a scene where Gumb clearly doesn’t need them, just to set us up for their use later in the film.
*. Lecter’s hotel cage looks like the crown jewels display in the Tower of London. It doesn’t seem remotely practical, or secure. Demme thought it “ludicrous imagery.” But it’s all part of the movie’s crazy theatricality. I mean, it’s one thing to allow for Lecter’s decoration of the cage after his escape, but look for example at the tableau the police officers form when they come crashing through the door. That’s staging too.
*. Hannibal is a ham. Note how he’s always calling people back to get in a last word. That’s something hams like to do. He likes to put on a show. He’s much different in this regard from Jame Gumb, as I’ll discuss later.
*. Imitation follows success. After this movie the deluge of crime procedurals (especially on television). This has all become quite conventional and mainstream now. As have other things. This may be the first movie to feature a nipple ring.
*. No Hopkins isn’t on camera much (he set a record for the least amount of screen time for a Best Actor Oscar winner). But he makes it count and he doesn’t really have to do anything more. As I’ve said before, a great villain just has to establish a presence.


*. I love the score by Howard Shore. Is it overused? A lot of contemporary reviewers thought so, but I don’t agree. But then I don’t think Carpenter’s tinkly Halloween score is overused either, and most people do.
*. Everyone hits on Starling. She is surrounded by the male gaze: other police officers, Dr. Chilton, the FBI trainees, possibly her boss Crawford, even the entomologist. And, of course, Hannibal: “I think it would be quite something to know you in private life’, “People will say we’re in love,” and the final stroking finger, like God reaching out to Adam.


*. But also note how short those shots are of Starling being ogled. A quick look inside the elevator before the doors close, a single pan around the funeral home parlour, the male trainees turning their heads to watch her ass. These are just moments, lasting no more than a second or two. You don’t have to belabour a point when you’re making it this effectively.
*. Perversity can be touching. It’s strange how these odd love affairs are so much more passionate, more convincing, than vanilla romances. Clarice and Hannibal share a relationship built on mutual respect. They make a good couple. We so seldom look on love . . .


*. Roger Corman got pretty high billing in the opening credits for having one line, didn’t he?
*. Oh the horrors of filming in the dark. The irresolvable paradoxes. There’s a famous goof that Jodie Foster points out on the commentary where Gumb’s gun is seen casting a shadow, but I don’t think many people (or any people, for that matter) notice this on a first viewing. What bothered me a bit was that I don’t think the goggles he’s wearing would work in a basement without windows and with the lights turned out. There needs to be some light.
*. Is it possible to (deliberately, consciously) kill yourself by swallowing your tongue? I don’t think so.
*. This is a B-movie at heart, but one made with incredible professionalism and skill and feel for the material. In the words of Vincent Canby, it’s “pop filmmaking of a high order.”
*. Of course the acting and direction and scoring are top notch. But there are so many of what are usually considered to be “little” things that are done well.
*. For example, you want location and set design? I’m not talking about the aforementioned theatrical way Hannibal festoons his cage with the body of the disembowelled policeman (how did he manage to do that anyway?), or the Victorian dungeon/asylum. Instead, look at that street in Belvedere, Ohio. The lawns with their wooden ducks and firewood and birdhouses and broken basketball hoop. Then the homes themselves and their interiors. God, it doesn’t get better than that. I’m transported by the eldritch wallpaper and the wearing of the hardwood floors.
*. Or take the sound. Note how that overemphasized whining noise of the night-vision goggles powering up echoes the same whine made by the polaroid taking pictures of the girl’s dead body in the morgue. It’s both annoying and creepy.
*. It’s a movie full of moments, many of them now famous. I think my favourite though is the reaction shot of Starling’s face when she sees the moth in Gumb’s house. She does it all with her eyes, and Demme gives her the whole frame to work with. David Thomson (from his book The Whole Equation): “But no matter the modern stress on special effects, there isn’t a sight in movies as momentous as shots of a face as its mind is being changed.” What we’re doing with this scene is watching someone not just reacting but thinking. And Starling has to immediately change her face again when Gumb looks at her. This leads to a wonderful stand-off where the two are both reading each other. Until, as the novel puts it: “Their eyes met and they knew each other.” Another change of face for Starling, signaling another change of role. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone back to watch just this one scene, and I never get tired of it.
*. Ted Levine’s Jame Gumb responds in an almost equally amazing fashion. When he starts laughing at Starling’s request to use his phone, does he know that he’s been found out? Then he has to make that hasty, almost comic, swerving exit. He’s a theatre person too, but more like one of the crew, someone who works backstage in the prop department (which is exactly what his basement tailor shop looks like). He’s the kind of guy who likes to perform alone in front of a mirror, not a real leading man like Hannibal. Gumb avoids the spotlight, where Hannibal relishes it. When he runs away I get the sense of an embarrassed amateur not ready for his close-up, a pretender running from the stage.


2 thoughts on “The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

  1. Over-The-Shoulder

    “But no matter the modern stress on special effects, there isn’t a sight in movies as momentous as shots of a face as its mind is being changed.” Dialogue is so overrated. Imagine if she had said, “Oh my God! You’re the killer!” Actions and facial expressions will forever remain the best language.


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